The local theatre troupe the Prenzie Players is most commonly known for stylistically bold, occasionally gender-bending takes on classical dramas and comedies, principally the works of William Shakespeare. But the company is about to embark on a particularly challenging experiment with its forthcoming production of the debuting Bear Girl - and the play's author, Prenzie co-founder J.C. Luxton, could hardly be accused of aiming too low.
"If you think of Shakespeare's Henriad," says Luxton, referencing the Bard's historical trilogy of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, "it's kind of the epic of England. An epic story of who we are and how we came to be. And I think what I'm trying to do with Bear Girl is the beginnings of something similar for the Quad Cities area."
A three-act period drama written in verse, and the Prenzies' first foray into original work, Bear Girl explores both Native American and area history through a tale of warring nations, female empowerment, and the experiences of local icon and legendary Sauk leader Black Hawk. (The production will be staged at Davenport's QC Theatre Workshop June 14 through 23.) Despite its weighty subject matter, however, both Luxton and director (and fellow Prenzie co-founder) Cait Bodenbender insist that Bear Girl isn't nearly as intimidating or dry as the play's synopsis might suggest.
"It may seem like I'm trying to be educational," Luxton says, "but I'm really not. It's more about telling a rip-roaring story. And it's a very diverse show in terms of tone. There's plenty of comedy, tragedy, music, a great fight sequence ... ."
"It really does move through emotional states quickly," adds Bodenbender. "You're in one place and then - zing! - you're someplace else. A second ago you were crying, and now you're laughing because someone farted."
Um ... excuse me?
"Yeah," says Luxton with a chuckle. "That's in the script, too."
Okay, so maybe he's occasionally aiming a little low. But given its emphasis on exhaustively researched local history and the scope of its presentation - with 28 characters portrayed by a cast of 11 - Bear Girl is still a considerable challenge for the Prenzies, and one that its director believes fits perfectly with the group's aesthetic.
"We're people who love language and new ideas," says Bodenbender, "and we mostly do poetic drama written in verse, and so it kind of made total sense to do this, you know?"
Steps of Regress
The idea for Bear Girl, says its author, began around 2005, after his completion of an as-yet-unpublished novel set in the Quad Cities circa 1999.
"It was the story of a community, in a way," says Luxton of his book. "But I realized it existed in a sort of perfect present, without the weight of the past behind it, and I really wanted to learn where our community came from. Where the 'now' came from. So I started doing research.
"I had been really attracted to the story of George Davenport, so I began with that. But as I worked on the story of George Davenport, I realized I'd need to write about the Black Hawk War of 1832, so I began to incorporate that research. But then, because I didn't know anything about Sauk Indians at that time, I realized I had to go back to the War of 1812 to make any sense of the Black Hawk War.
"And as I worked on all that for several years," continues Luxton with a laugh, "I realized I had to go back even further - a whole generation, to Black Hawk's youth, to really make sense of what happened in the War of 1812. So this all began with a series of steps of regress that kept taking me back and back and back, and finally to a place where I could begin."
While researching Native American history in the Midwest, Luxton says that he began imagining Bear Girl's central storyline - and the figure who would inspire his play's title - while reading Black Hawk's autobiography (eventually published in 1912), which found the Sauk leader's words translated by the city of Davenport's principal founder, Antoine LeClaire.
"I would say the first 15 pages of that autobiography were the core places it [Bear Girl] came from," says Luxton. "He takes you from his becoming a man at 13 to about the age of 35. But the problem, for me, was that Black Hawk had already told his own story, and so I decided that the most interesting way to approach it was through the eyes of the women of the Sauk nation. You know, we have these kinds of stereotypes of Indian women as either 'the drudge' or 'the princess,' but the power of Sauk women was actually very interesting."
Through Black Hawk's autobiography and additional sources of research - including conversations with members of the Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities, Iowa City's American Indian Student Association, and noted Meskwaki historian/storyteller Preston Duncan - Luxton discovered that while Sauk men were the warriors for their nation, "the land actually belonged to the women. The houses belonged to them. When there was a divorce, the woman would basically put all the man's stuff outside her house and then he had to go live with his mom, because women owned the property."
Women also occasionally served as the Sauk nation's unofficial peace-keepers. "At the end of Black Hawk's autobiography," says Luxton, "there's a reference to 'the daughter of Mat-ta-tas.' The whites are demanding that the Sauks leave the area, and the Sauks send their most important person to speak to the white general, and that's this woman - the figure that I'm calling Bear Girl, since we don't actually know her given name.
"So there was all this, and I, too, had lived through many years of a nation at war, although not from the perspective of a combatant. So I just thought, 'Let's tell the story of Black Hawk, but from the perspective of the people at home.' You know, I didn't want to do a typical war story where you're following warriors off into strange territory - even though there is some of that here."
According to Bodenbender, "The play is, in its most boiled-down form, the story of Bear Girl and her desire to have her nation [the Sauk] mobilized for war in an effective and kind of final manner. Her nation is engaged in skirmishes with another nation called the Down Belows, and she wants the men - one of whom is Black Hawk - to organize and defeat them and put an end to the war, mostly because she believes that her mother is a captive of the Down Belows. The play starts with Bear Girl at 15 years old, and shows how, through the next 20 years, she manipulates people and does what she has to do to help end the war."
And in his telling of this tale, what Luxton consequently fashioned was a theatre piece that blended historical accuracy with literary invention - and one that the author anticipates will feel "simultaneously familiar and strange.
"Black Hawk himself, of course, is a character in the play," Luxton says, "and his best friend Swing Round Toward Me and his wife Flying Over are based on characters in the autobiography. But there are also characters that I've completely made up, which I've done, like any playwright, to draw out certain characteristics of the protagonist. Since I'm telling Bear Girl's story, I need to arrange everything exactly right so we can truly understand who she is and why she's doing things the way she is. So I've mixed reality and fiction fairly freely."
What Luxton hopes will result from the mixture is "a kind of local epic about the Sauk at the absolute height of their power. They and their allies the Meskwaki - who lived in what would be downtown Rock Island now - basically controlled the upper Mississippi River valley. This huge, huge homeland. So part of what I wanted to do was extend our historical sense of our own past further back than we're used to taking it.
"There's this sense here, I think, that either nothing important ever happened in the Midwest, or that what mattered maybe happened when someone's Norwegian grandpa showed up in 1912, or something like that. We have an epic history, though. An incredible history. But it isn't only about white people."
Keeping Things and Losing Things
In fitting with the presentation of the Prenzies' first original production, Luxton and Bodenbender also took a somewhat novel approach in terms of the creative process: Actors were cast in January, but not in specific roles until two-and-a-half months into Bear Girl's rehearsals.
"Because the script was still in development," says Bodenbender, "we assembled a team of people to workshop it over the last few months. The idea was that everybody workshopping it would have a role, but I didn't want anybody too attached to a particular role, because we were still making script decisions about keeping things and losing things." (Asked if any cast members were disappointed by her final casting decisions, Bodenbender says, "I think everybody was fine. They played all sorts of parts in the beginning, but in the end, people kind of fell where they were supposed to, and where they were happy.")
Bear Girl's workshopping process actually began years before Bodenbender's cast was assembled; Luxton states that the current version of his script is the sixth version he's completed since 2011, the last three of which were similarly read aloud by actors prior to the making of revisions.
"The reason I want to tell a story is because I want to communicate a feeling," says Luxton. "And so 90 percent of revisions come from a sense of 'I'm not feeling what I should be feeling here.' Like with this play, I'd think, 'Maybe Bear Girl's friend needs to challenge her.' ??[Or] 'Maybe that friend needs to disappear from the play.' But you don't really know those things until other people are embodying the characters, and you realize that you've either communicated the feeling of the moment, or the actor - for perfectly good reasons - is misinterpreting what you intended, and the moment doesn't feel the way that it should.
"And if that's the case," says Luxton with a laugh, "that's my fault, and I need to fix it. So while some things have stayed the same from earlier drafts, characters have been folded into each other, whole arcs have vanished, a giant battle scene has been added ... . It's a very helpful process."
Bodenbender says that one thing that quickly became clear during Bear Girl's workshopping was the notion that, unlike most Prenzie productions, this one would have to be performed without the company employing some of its typical methods.
"There's no gender-switching in this," says Bodenbender, whose previous directorial efforts for the Prenzies have found female actors Denise Yoder and Angela Rathman playing the male characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream's Quince and The Merchant of Venice's Launcelot Gobbo. "Because Sauk society is so very gendered, it felt important - in order to represent the culture as accurately as we can - to keep men in male roles and women in female roles."
"It's a play about the power of women in a nation at war," adds Luxton. "So having women play men made things very confusing."
Workshopping also allowed Bear Girl's cast members - among them Prenzie veterans Cole McFarren (as Black Hawk), Jeremy Mahr, Maggie Woolley, Beth Woolley, Andy Lord, Matt Moody, Angela Rathman, and Jarrod DeRooi - to add considerable creative input regarding everything from the narrative's arc to character motivation to the invented "foreign language" spoken in the play.
"We have a couple of characters who are not Sauk," explains Bodenbender, "so the other characters don't understand them, and neither does the audience. But especially because we're not Native Americans ourselves, we wanted to be very respectful in honoring the Native culture that we're dealing with, and not try to mimic a language that we don't have any real relation to. So Jen Brown, who plays Bear Girl and is a linguist from Iowa City, put together this chart of Native American syllables for the actors in those roles, so they could make up this new language. Their words are essentially nonsensical, but using specific syllables helps the actors get across the meaning in what they're saying.
"The whole workshopping process was really, really collaborative," Bodenbender says, "and that's also carried over into our more regular script rehearsals, where there's a lot of input from the cast. We've fostered an environment where opinions are really welcome."
In addition to the contributions of the actors, Luxton says that Bear Girl's production is also being enhanced by its original sound design. "We have Terry Skaggs working on an hour-long soundscape. He's been overlaying completely natural outdoor sounds so that they come across as more intense than they would be in reality - like 12 hours of sounds over the course of an hour. That's the kind of natural intensity I'm looking to surround the play with.
"I mean, I talk about history and that kind of thing," says Luxton, "but in the end, Bear Girl should really move the audience. For two hours, it should be thrilling and exciting and sorrowful and hilarious. It should be an emotional experience. It's all about the feeling."
Bear Girl runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) June 14 through 22, and tickets and information are available by calling (309)278-8426 or visiting PrenziePlayers.com.